Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration

I’ve been asked to comment on the Manhattan Declaration.

1.A document can be an “ecumenical” in more than one sense. It may be an ecumenical or interfaith document in the incidental sense that the framers happen to belong to different religious traditions.

However, the document itself doesn’t focus on interfaith relations. It’s not a self-reflective document which concentrates on their mutual identity. They don’t spend time talking about each other. Affirming each other. Finding the good in each other’s respective traditions.

Instead, it’s an outward-looking document. A call to action. It takes for granted a preexisting consensus on certain social issues. There is no effort to find common ground in theology. To meet halfway. Instead, they already agree on certain social issues, and they are simply joining forces to maximize their political clout.

I don’t object to that type of document. And if the Manhattan Declaration were clearly that type of document, I could sign it.

2.Apropos (1), this is, in principle, much like any political or military alliance. You can form rotating alliances. Someone who’s your adversary in one setting can be your ally in another.

Likewise, there’s a tradeoff in which each ally has to give a little to get a little. Gen Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery are both prima donnas. Each one represents a vital ally. They both can’t have what they want all the time. So Ike has to give each one just enough to make it worth his while.

Same thing with a party platform. Maybe, like Charles Krauthammer, you’re a hawkish social liberal. You don’t agree with everything in the party platform. But you have priorities. If national security is your priority, you may be a registered Republican even, like Krauthammer, you disagree with the platform on social issues.

3.Apropos (2), the very fact that this is an “ecumenical” exercise carries with it some built-in weasel room. It’s understood, going in, that every signatory may not agree with every statement.

Some critics approach documents like this as if they were strict subscriptionists. As if you can’t sign a document like this unless you agree with every jot and tittle. But that holds the signatory to an even higher standard than we have for ordinands.

I think an underlying assumption of consensus documents like this is that some allowance is implicitly made for the mental reservations of the signatory. It’s like Congressional legislation. Voting for the bill doesn’t mean you rubberstamp everything in the bill. In this context, “agreement” is inherently flexible.

Rather, a lawmaker votes for a bill if, on the one hand, the bill contains something his constituents need while, on the other hand, it doesn’t contain something too objectionable to his constituents.

4.On the other hand, a document can be ecumenical in the sense that it’s fundamentally inward-looking rather than outward-looking. The focus of the document lies on the participants, and the institutions or religious traditions which they represent. The point of the document is to talk about each other. Affirm one another.

Interfaith documents of this sort tend to take one of two different forms.

You may have members of the religious left who sit down together to draft a statement expressing their shared outlook. And since the framers are all religious pluralists to begin with, they genuinely share a common outlook, for they have no fundamental differences. To the extent that they represent different traditions, that’s a matter of personal preference or ethnicity.

Or, to take another example, you have an informal get together of Catholics and Protestants. They hammer out a document containing deliberately equivocal formulations which one side takes one way, consistent with its theology, and the other side takes another way, consistent with its theology.

The Catholic participants make throwaway concessions that don’t cost them anything while the Protestant participants make substantive concessions. There’s the carefully crafted illusion that both sides are meeting each other halfway, but in reality, the fundamental motion is all in one direction.

Interfaith documents of this sort are worse than useless.

5.The basic problem with the Manhattan Declaration is that it has more than one target audience. As the document itself says, the framers are speaking both “to and from” their respective faith “communities.”

The document is partly a call to action, partly a call to repentance, and partly an ultimatum. It’s both inward and outward-looking.

And this muddles the message. For example, the document ends with a veiled threat of civil disobedience, if need be. A shot across the bow to the liberal establishment.

I don’t object to that. However, the document is also full of self-recriminations and mea culpas about the many failings of historic Christendom.

But the ultimatum would be more convincing if it didn’t contain so much breast-beating about the real or perceived failings of Christendom. It makes it sound as if the framers and signatories must engage in public confession to earn permission to speak to the issues. But an ultimatum shouldn’t be so apologetic.

6.Apropos (5), the document accentuates the notion of collective guilt, as if the representatives of one religious tradition are culpable for the failings of another religious tradition.

Unfortunately, that becomes the religious equivalent of identity politics. I don’t take that seriously.

And to the extent that this document is a summons to the Christian community, the way in which chooses to frame its appeal is unintentionally divisive. I don’t apologize for the dead.

So the message of the document is fairly confused and counterproductive. In principle, it could simply state a political agenda grounded in a shared vision on certain social issues. But it dilutes that with lots of soul-searching and handholding.

We end up with a well-meaning document that makes a number of fine statements. At the same time, the document is far too self-absorbed. Instead of retaining a focus on the objective issues and imperatives, along with a practical plan of action, it degenerates into group therapy.

As such, this document reflects the social circle and social dynamics of the framers. The world in which they think and move. An upper crust of Christian academics and hierarchs.


  1. Thanks for your commentary Steve. It looks at so many different angles.

    FWIW, I found this article by Albert Mohler and this article by Scott Klusendor to be persuasive and compelling.

  2. Thanks, Steve.

    My issue with not signing the document has to do with what I see as blurring the Gospel.

    I've made my case over at my site.

    I fall more in-line with James White's reasoning. (And Frank Turks at Firstthings.)

  3. It's a mostly good document that probably will do more good than harm.

    Its comments on the Christian status of Catholicism and Orthodoxy are misleading. I doubt that Paul would have worded an agreement with the Judaizers in that manner. It could be argued that people like Robert George are considered Christians as individuals, in spite of the false gospel of their denomination. But that probably isn't how most people would perceive the document, and that sort of reading becomes even more problematic when you consider how many people have been involved with it (drafting it or signing it) and how unlikely it is that every Catholic or Orthodox involved is being described as an individual who's a Christian in spite of his denomination's false gospel. I doubt that any of the Evangelical signers know every non-Evangelical signer well enough to reliably judge him to be a Christian in spite of his denominational affiliation. And the document could easily have been framed in a way that avoided such problems. That fact ought to be kept in mind. Whose fault is it when a controversy that could so easily have been avoided wasn't?

    However, the document focuses on other issues, which lessens the significance of its unwise comments about Catholicism and Orthodoxy. On the issues the document focuses on, its problems are relatively minor. For the most part, it's a good document.

    I've seen some non-conservative critics raise the issue of divorce and question why the document focuses on the issues it focuses upon. Supposedly, Christians should be more focused on divorce and less focused on homosexual marriage, for example. But the document does address divorce, repeatedly. For example, it refers to "a devastatingly high rate of divorce" and goes on:

    "We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to
    uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same. To strengthen families, we must stop glamorizing promiscuity and infidelity and restore among our people a sense of the profound beauty, mystery, and holiness of faithful marital love. We must reform illadvised policies that contribute to the weakening of the institution of marriage, including the discredited idea of unilateral divorce."

    Furthermore, as Steve noted, not all individuals and groups can be held equally accountable for every problem that's associated with Christianity in some way. For example, as far as I know, Albert Mohler has never been divorced, and I've repeatedly heard him criticize divorce laws and Christian divorce rates on his radio program. If other Christians have handled divorce irresponsibly, why should Mohler be held accountable for their errors?

    Though I wouldn't sign the document, for reasons such as what I explain in the first paragraph above, I agree with something Mohler said in his article defending his signing of it:

    "The focus on these three issues is forced by the circumstances of current threats as well as the awareness that the time of decision on these questions has come."

    Even if more people improperly divorce than are involved in homosexuality, there can be reasons for focusing more on the latter than the former. For example, if our society is at more of a turning point on homosexuality than it is on divorce, then giving more attention to homosexuality for a while can make sense. And there are other potential reasons for giving one more attention than the other. One may be more clearly condemned by scripture, thus warranting different treatment, for instance.

  4. It was interesting to hear your angle, Steve. My feelings on it are more inline with Mark's.

    I thought this document would be obscured, but was surprised that O'Reilly actually covered it last night.

    Maybe, like Charles Krauthammer, you’re a hawkish social liberal.

    I didn't know this. Shucks, I love Charles on most stuff.

  5. Hi Jason,

    Whatever happened to "Jus Divinum"? I recently scanned the archives using the key word "Klusendorf" and found him and occasionally Steve interacting with Phil Johnson about the topic of cobelligerence.

    As an aside, (no surprise to you) I'm on Steve, Jus Divinum, and Scott Klusendorf's side when it comes to cobelligerence. I just don't think the arguments that Phil Johnson or Steve Camp are that persuasive.

    So as far as interacting with you, it seems that we'd be rehashing what's already been hashed out by Jus Divinum and Phil Johnson.


  6. Truth Unites... and Divides,

    I didn't cite any of those men, and they weren't commenting on the document in question. I'm critical of the Manhattan Declaration while agreeing with Klusendorf that it's acceptable to work with Catholics and Orthodox in some contexts. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Citing something like Klusendorf's article wouldn't give me any reason to change my position on the Manhattan Declaration.

  7. I'm not looking to change your mind, Jason.

    I am looking at general principles of co-belligerence and determining their applicability to the discussion at hand. I see relevant application.

    Anyways, is Jus Divinum still around?

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides,

    I don't remember seeing any posts from Jus Divinum recently, here or anywhere else.

  9. Jason,

    I'm sorry that Jus Divinum is not around anymore.

    I found this post by Steve Hays called "Witch Burners for Christ" and there's this excerpt he wrote which looks to pertain to the discussion at hand (Note: ECB stands for Evangelical Co-Belligerence or Evangelical Co-Belligerents):

    Phil Johnson: "You seem to deduce from your theonomic beliefs an implicit imperative for political activism and aggressive, formal co-belligerence (where evangelicals join cartels and forge yokes with anti-Christian religions to campaign for moral causes)."

    Steve Hays: "There are two separate issues here. Let’s deal with one at a time:

    First of all, as regards political activism there are three possible options:

    1.A Christian is duty-bound to participate in the democratic process.

    2.A Christian is duty-bound not to participate in the democratic process.

    3.Political activism falls under category of the adiaphora.

    Now, there are arguments for and against (1). And it isn’t essential to my position to argue for (1). At least, not here and now.

    However, some of the critics of ECB talk as though they espouse (2). They regard political activism as a false priority. For them, preaching the gospel should be our priority, and since political activism necessarily diverts time and resources away from that endeavor, it is wrong for Christians to invest any time in political activism.

    As to (3), this can be taken in more than one way. As I’ve said before, I think the proper way to establish Scriptural warrant operates not on a one-to-one correspondence between a specific injunction and a specific practice, but on a one-to-many correspondence between a general injunction and a variety of special cases which adapt and apply that general injunction to our particular circumstances.

    Now how, exactly, we apply the general norm is, in some measure, a matter of Christian liberty. There may be more than one way we can do it. But whether we do it at all is not a matter of Christian liberty.

    So, for example, look at what Paul has to say about the civil or political use of the law in 1 Tim 1:9-10. How, exactly, we implement that standing obligation varies with our opportunities and circumstances. There is more than one way of enacting and enforcing this moral norm. But we are certainly not at liberty to disregard it if we are in a position to honor and uphold it.

    Secondly, there is the question of what associations are licit and what are illicit. Are we talking about first-degree separatism, second-degree separatism, or what?

    For example, critics of ECB are critical of alliances between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. This would be a prescription for first-degree separatism: don’t associate with non-Evangelicals or unbelievers.

    But they are equally critical of those who, while Evangelical in their own profession, associate with non-Evangelicals. Dobson and Colson are favorite whipping boys in this regard.

    That would be a prescription for second-degree separatism: don’t associate with those who associate with non-Evangelicals or unbelievers.

    And although critics of ECB are fond of quoting 2 Cor 6, they don’t explain how their apparent endorsement of second-degree separatism is consonant with 1 Cor 5:9-11.

    Thirdly, critics of ECB are not only critical of cobelligerence, but they are equally critical of political activism per se, on the grounds that it diverts time and attention away from the only real solution to crime and moral decline, which is the gospel.

    But if that is the case, then the objection to ECB is secondary. For even if such political alliances were limited to fellow Evangelicals, whether in the form of first- or second-degree separatism, critics of ECB would still disapprove on the primary grounds that we should not lobby for legislation anyway; since legislation treats the symptom rather than the cause."

  10. Hi Steve, Jason, et al,

    What do you think of this blog post and the ensuing comment thread by Professor Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary as regards to teaming up with unbelievers to do Biblical scholarship?

    Any structural similarities to the critique of Protestants working with Catholics and Orthodox on the issues in the Manhattan Declaration with critiquing Protestants who work with atheists and non-Protestants on issues in Biblical Scholarship?